Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2020
To watch this service on YouTube go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKiTvhFZ3Sk. If you just want to catch the sermon, go to 18:40, where I began with the scripture reading.
If you know Old Testament history, you’ll recall there was a period in which Jerusalem was a vassal state of Babylon. In 597 BC, the Babylonians took large numbers of leaders from Jerusalem, along with skilled craftsman, into exile to Babylon. It was an attempt by this world power to keep Jerusalem in line by making connections between the two nations. But the Hebrews kept revolting against Babylon and in 586 BC the city was destroyed, the temple burned and those who survived the slaughter were either led into exile in Babylon or fled to Egypt.
This passage takes the form of a letter Jeremiah writes to those already in exile in Babylon. It was written sometime between 597 and 586 BC, between the first great exile and the last. At this time, in Jerusalem, there is a lot of nationalist talk. The people are sure God will protect his temple and nothing serious would happen to them. Unlike Jeremiah, I’m sure others wrote subversive letters to those in exile, encouraging them to do what they could to destroy Babylon’s ability to make war. But that’s not Jeremiah’s message. Instead, he tells those in exile to make the best of the situation. That if Babylon prospers, so will they. That’s not what people want to hear. Many think Jeremiah is a traitor, that he’s aiding the enemy.
You know, like those in Babylon, we’re now living in a time of exile. Things that we took for granted back in February and early March have been snatched away. We want Good News, we want to know when this nightmare is going to end. But is that the right question to be asking? Maybe we should be listening to the advice of Jeremiah and make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves?
I was reading a blog post this week in which the author, the president of the Barna Group, a religious think tank that also does polling, wrote about ways the pandemic is negatively impacting people. Barna’s polling had shown that relationships in America were in trouble before the pandemic. After five months of living in lock-down, it’s worse and creating a mental health crisis. Loneliness is a problem, not just for older people who live alone. Surprisingly, its worse for those younger. Two out of three millennials say they are lonely at least once a week. Relationships are straining under the pressure we’re facing, and addictions are growing.
At a time like this, we want to hear that the pandemic will soon be over, that things will be returning to normal, or that it’s really not as bad as we’re making it out to be. And there are those who tout such messages, but are they any different than the prophets of Jeremiah’s day who suggested things are going to be okay? Time will tell, but the message of Jeremiah still applies. We are to make the best out of our present situation. Time goes on. We can’t stop making a life for ourselves which Jeremiah describes as building houses, planting gardens, marrying off children, starting families, and working for the wellbeing of the city in which they live. In other words, while we take care of their own needs, we’re also to help care for others, even those who believe differently than us.
This all leads up to the 11th verse, which is a favorite of many people. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not harm, to give you a future with hope.” Many people will copy this verse in cards sent to grandchildren and I’ve even heard graduation speeches built around these words which assure us that God wants what is best for us. God promises his children a hopeful future.
As comforting as this verse sounds, we must place it in context. In verse 10, just words before these, those in exile are reminded that they are going to be there for some time… 70 years! That must have hit like a bombshell. Those in exile are sad and missing their families and their community and the temple, the symbol of their God. They want to go home. In this sadness, Jeremiah encourages them to seek the welfare of the city in which they will find themselves, a place that they hate. It’s good advice, but in some ways it’s tough love.
As I’ve said, the purpose behind this exile, for the Babylonians, was to take enough of the leadership, including many of the young promising leaders like Ezekiel and Daniel, to ensure that Judah wouldn’t revolt. In a way, although they did not know it at this point in time, those who were first taken away had it easier than those who stayed behind. Those still in Jerusalem experienced the hunger and the horror of the destruction of Jerusalem a decade later.
This was not a good time in Israel’s history and in a way it’s not a good time in our history. As a nation, Israel was being torn apart and the same can be said to be happening to us. Back then, people were afraid. Today, we’re afraid. Back then, famine, suffering, more death and more destruction were on the horizon. We don’t know what’s on the horizon, but the dying from COVID is not over and our society seems to be splintering into factions. But as people of faith, we are to have a positive outlook for we know that God is in control and while God’s timing often doesn’t correlate with our desires, God does work things out.
Faulkner, the southern writer from Mississippi, once said that while it’s hard to believe, “disaster seems to be good for people.” When entering a period of exile, like we’re in, much of what is superfluous is stripped away and we learn what really matters. What matters is that we seek God and trust in God’s promises.
Consider this passage. Even as darkness was descending on Israel, God speaking through Jeremiah offers a word of hope. To know that even though things are bad, God has our back and in the long-run our best interest at heart can help us endure great challenges. The people of Israel had to learn over and over again to be patient. We need to remember that and trust God.
Yes, we are in trying times. But this is not the first time God’s people have faced challenges. The good news is that when we endure and remain faithful, our faith is strengthened. As Paul captures so elegantly in the fifth chapter of Romans:
We boast in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
May our lives be filled with love and hope despite what we experience in life. Amen.
 J. A. Thompson makes the case that this letter was written around 594, after some of the exiles created disturbance in Babylon that lead to at least the execution of two exile members of the Hebrew community there. See J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 544.
 The Prophet Ezekiel, who was a part of the early exiles, had a vision in Babylon of God leaving the temple which helped prepare those there for the temple’s destruction. See Ezekiel 10.
 A hint of this can be seen in the rest of this chapter which concerns a letter from Shemaiah in Babylon telling the high priest in Jerusalem to silence Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s prophecy is not what they want to hear. See Jeremiah 29:24-32.
 An example from the past: In the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, many kept saying “it’s only influenza” while more people died (in sheer numbers, not in percentage of population) from the illness at any other time in history. See John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2004, Penguin Books, New York, 2018).
 Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at its Best (Dowers Grove, IL: IVP, 1983), 156. Peterson’s Faulkner quote comes from Lion in the Garden, Interviews edited by James B. Merriweather and Michael Millgate (NY: Random House, 1968), 108.
 Romans 5:3-5.